ST. LOUIS • Attorney Jane Dueker has filed an ethics complaint against Alderman Cara Spencer, alleging the lawmaker is trying to pass a bill that would advance the cause of an organization she works for, without first disclosing the potential conflict of interest.
The bill proposed by Spencer would require payday lenders operating in the city to pay an annual $10,000 permit fee in order to stay in business.
Meanwhile, Spencer serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Consumers Council of Missouri, a paid but part-time position in which she advocates on a number of issues, including a crackdown on predatory payday lenders.
Payday lenders, which often target poor communities, offer loans that come with stiff interest rates that can reach as high as 500 percent.
Dueker said she does not have any payday lenders as clients and filed the complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission as a matter of principle.
“I think she’s in violation of the rules. She ought to disclose her interest” in this matter, Dueker said. “Rules need to be followed. Even if your cause is pure, you have to follow the rules.”
Spencer believes she has followed the rules.
The 20th Ward alderman said she consulted both the Consumers Council of Missouri and the attorney who represents the Board of Aldermen before accepting the position.
The notion that she is hiding anything is “absolutely false,” Spencer said.
She added that she’s asked the board’s attorney to speak to the Missouri Ethics Commission to help clear up the matter.
“I was working on this legislation before I took the job,” Spencer said. “This is a bullying tactic on the part of the big-money interests of the payday loan industry.”
Spencer believes prominent lobbyist Lou Hamilton is behind the ethics complaint.
Hamilton is a registered lobbyist often seen at aldermanic meetings. Beginning this summer, he was hired by a handful of payday and title loan companies to push back against Spencer’s bill.
But Hamilton said he has nothing to do with the ethics complaint.
“Cara Spencer introduced legislation that would’ve taken already tight restrictions on an industry and made them like something we’ve never seen before in North America,” Hamilton said. “I was hired by a consortium that felt they were being unfairly targeted.
“I don’t have a single thing to do with the complaint,” he continued. “But I saw it, and frankly, I agree with it.”
In Missouri, ethics hearings and investigations are private. Anyone found to be in violation of the state’s ethics laws can be fined or issued a letter of reprimand.